The Sounds of Thai: Shifting Perceptions (28 Oct 2012)

28 October 2012; AT5 = 607 hours; total time = 1540 hours

I’ve had seven days of classes totaling 40 hours since my return to school; my speaking and comprehension abilities seem pretty much the same as before the break, but I feel reenergized and more enthusiastic about being back in class.

My perception of the sound of Thai continues to change. A few months back as I was listening to Thai being spoken, I had a shift in perception about a certain Thai word that I had already become familiar with. I had been perceiving the word as something like “see-en-dahm” (it means something like loud) and had even been using it in speaking, when suddenly I heard it as “see-en-dahn” with the final N being pronounced at the back of the throat, something akin to the N in English words like sing or think.            Anyway, over the last few weeks it seems like I’m noticing that I’m not always clear on whether the sound I’m hearing in certain words is (roughly the English equivalent of) N, or the N at the back of the throat (as in sing). This “confusion” mostly seems to occur when the N sound is at the end of a syllable (or is it the end of a word?). Like I’ll hear a word that I used to think used one of the N’s and now it will sound like the other N. Maybe I’m really hearing a variation in the way people pronounce the word, or maybe I haven’t fully developed the ability to distinguish between these two sounds.

There’s a similar process going on for the sounds that roughly correspond to English L and R.

I also realize something else about that back-of-the-throat N sound: without really thinking about it, I used to perceive it as being more like NG, whereas now I perceive it as being more like just N (like saying “sing” and not pronouncing the G at all). Even though I never used English to try to understand Thai – I’ve never read a description in English of what the various Thai letters sound like – I still have to wonder now if my perceptions of Thai sounds has been somewhat skewed by my familiarity with similar English sounds, as if I were unable to conceive of pronouncing the N sound at the back of the throat without adding in a consonant afterwards simply because that’s the way that English works.

There’s another sound that I just really noticed within the last week or so. It has to do with certain vowels (not the consonants), and it might have something to do with the tones that Thai uses, but at this point although I hear it, I don’t know how to describe what I’m hearing. But I wanted to note it down here and maybe at some point when things become clearer I’ll try to describe in more detail what I’m hearing and, if possible, the process by which my perception of this sound came more into focus.

I have to assume that my perceptions of the Thai sound system have been changing all along, given that at least some of what used to be an unclear blur of sound has “crystallized out” into distinct sounds – in some cases clear enough not only for me to perceive the sounds as words but even to use them in speech myself. However most of the time it’s a process that I’m not all that aware of. What I’ve written about here are some of the occasions when for some reason I was more aware of these shifts in perception than I usually am. If my descriptions seem kind of vague and sketchy, I think it’s because my awareness of these processes is vague and sketchy, and also because these kinds of changes are hard to describe, hard to put into words.

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